02.18.2016 2

GPS is huge for business, the Internet of Things — and for surveillance

obama eye

By Daniel Matthews

Try typing “Internet of Things” (IoT) into any search engine. With Google, I get 721 million results. With Bing, over 62 million. The Internet is buzzing about a term some people think is just a buzzword.

The U.S. now has around 24.9 Internet-connected devices per every 100 inhabitants. We’re moving ever-closer to an Internet-dependent approach to our everyday lives.

Around the world, the IoT is the end-all-be-all of data tech for one primary reason: synthesis. This new Internet combines multiple forms of technology and manipulates data to revolutionize the way you interact with the things around you — and how things interact with you.

It’s a massively complex system of sensors exchanging massive amounts of data. The data inform decisions, such as when a thermostat should alter the temperature. Or, in the future your autonomous car will be able to take an alternate route when there’s a traffic jam ahead. And that’s where an integral form of technology, one we sometimes take for granted, comes in: GPS tracking.

The U.S. government started the Global Positioning System (GPS) project in 1973. It has enabled a variety of innovations that are precursors to the IoT. In turn, the IoT may enable a whole new level of government surveillance.

What the IoT promises is an innovative approach on the level of the commonplace — anything can become part of a “smart” network. In that case, anything can become part of a surveillance network.


The idea of GPS is essentially a web of satellites that transmit data to monitors, antennae, and receivers. Satellites communicate with a Control Segment, which consists of several master control stations, four antennae, and six monitor stations. The Control Segment sends data to the User Segment, which consists of hundreds of thousands of receivers in the hands of military, scientific, commercial, and civil personnel worldwide. Finally, the civilian segment employs the accurate locational and chronological data for everything from astronomy to automotive navigation.

GPS, autos, and the cloud

Cloud computing is integral to the IoT because there’s no better place than the cloud to store and sift through big data. Autonomous vehicles integrate the cloud, sensors, and GPS. Some big farms use automated tractors for standard crop operations. But we won’t see autonomous cars on the road until around 2020.

Here’s an example of how GPS is already integrating with the cloud and cars: TSheets is a startup with a cloud-based app. The app doesn’t just allow employees to clock in and out of work on their computer — GPS integration allows managers to view where their mobile employees are the entire time they’re on the clock. The data goes to the cloud so that managers, as well as employees, can view it on the app’s interface in real time. Once the employee clocks out, the GPS shuts off.

This is the same type of platform employed by the biggest driving app company out there right now: Uber. If you’ve ever taken an Uber before, you know you can watch the driver on your screen via GPS.

Fleet management is another automotive application for GPS. Coca-Cola uses GPS to truck 160 million cases of Coke annually, through which they’ve shaved off 20 percent from fleet operation costs. Tiny receivers can even tell a fleet manager if a trucker’s seatbelt isn’t buckled.

In Finland, Volvo is using GPS to warn drivers about the location of herds of elk. The warning system incorporates GPS tracking, animal-vehicle collision statistics, and analysis of wildlife movement patterns. If and when the roads become smart roads, as would be the case with the IoT, sensors in the road and other locations could relay data about elk to the cloud, where it would then be analyzed in combination with GPS data to provide an alert to the driver, or to the autonomous vehicle.

GPS and humans     

One of the interesting points in the OECD’s study of the IoT is that, if we want to be accurate, we should call it the “Internet of Everything”. Proponents envision humans as part of the IoT — it’s not just a web of objects. Is it discomforting to think of yourself as a blip on a stranger’s screen? Depends on how you want to look at it.

Mobile technology is facilitating the Internet of Everything. In Canada, there’s a smartphone app called Need an Accountant. (They must really need accountants in Canada!) “Need an Accountant” is an example of the Internet of Everything. Thanks to GPS, the locations of accountants appear as points on a map, relative to the user’s location.

GPS also comes into play for tracking your activity levels and fitness. You can turn your smartphone into a bio-monitoring device because of a range of sensors, including accelerometer, gyro, video, proximity, compass, and GPS. Your smartphone then sends data about your bio-activity to a database, where it’s weighed against your past levels as well as the healthy averages of others. No doubt, because of the Patriot Act the government has this information.

There’s an upside. The implications are huge for the world of medicine. Without an actual checkup, doctors could monitor patients who are at risk. If someone has a stroke or a heart attack, sensors can alert the physician or caregiver. Then, GPS tracking can help first-responders get to the scene faster to potentially save a life.

GPS and commerce

According to RetailPro, the Macy’s flagship store in New York City and American Eagle Outfitters are both using in-store GPS. Through an app and a Wi-Fi connection, they track shoppers’ movements. Then, based on location, the app gives you special promotions and deals. You’re looking at a stroller and you look down at your phone and it offers you a discount or other type of deal if you buy that stroller.

Intrusive? Well, you choose to download the app so you know what you’re getting into.

GPS and privacy

The Guardian just published an article on how the IoT will be a tool for government surveillance. This wouldn’t be possible without the GPS network the US government pioneered in ’73. Intelligence Chief James Clapper frames this as a weapon in the war against terror. Is that claim a red herring? How many of us will be monitored without our knowledge? How many terrorists would buy smart devices when it’s obvious they’re a government surveillance tool?

Due to the convenience, it’s far easier to enable GPS on your smartphone. Doing so diminishes your privacy. In an Internet of Everything future, there may not be such a thing as privacy. You will be dependent on the decisions big data dictates. Whether or not that’s a future you want, technologies such as GPS are prime enablers for what is more than just a buzzword. It’s a reality.

Daniel Matthews is a freelance writer from Boise, ID with a passion for tech, innovation, and limiting government surveillance. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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